'That message spread throughout Judea, beginning in Galilee after the baptism that John announced: how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power; how He went about doing good...' -- Acts 10:37-38

Our annual March 25 feast of the annunciation always creates problems for teachers and students of Scripture.

The celebration revolves around Gabriel's well-known encounter with Mary, narrated in Luke 1. As any critical reader of Scripture knows, that's only one of four Gospel annunciations concerning Jesus of Nazareth: Totally independent of Mary's annunciation, Joseph has an angelic experience at the beginning of Matthew's Gospel, and both Mark and Luke (in Sunday's Gospel, Luke 3:15-16,21-22) also provide an annunciation to Jesus as part of His baptismal experience.

(The evangelists also supply us with annunciations to Jesus' disciples both in their transfiguration narratives and in Matthew's baptismal passage, but we'll leave those aside for the time being.)

As I mentioned two weeks ago in my Holy Family Sunday commentary, biblical annunciations are literary devices created by our sacred authors to point out the meaning of the events they're narrating. They're included for the sake of the readers, not the biblical participants.

Figurative vs. literal
Though they're important for helping us understand our biblical writers' beliefs and theologies, the vast majority of Scripture scholars don't take these passages literally.

Without annunciations, we can presume that biblical personalities lived lives quite similar to our own, often asking why God placed them in specific situations and in relationships with particular people. It usually takes a lifetime to make sense out of a lifetime. Rarely are there shortcuts.

Practically every source employed by our Christian sacred authors associate Jesus with John the Baptizer. Notice what Peter tells Cornelius in our Acts 10:34-38 passage: "You know what has happened all over Judea, beginning in Galilee after the baptism that John preached?" Yet, once John was arrested and eventually martyred, Jesus not only takes over John's ministry, He becomes even greater than John.

That's why Luke's John tells Jesus, "I need to be baptized by you, and yet you are coming to me." We presume no one around Jesus and John would have realized the former's superiority to the latter until after John's arrest and martyrdom, long after Jesus and John's original relationship was formed, eventually solidified by Jesus' death and resurrection. Luke obviously inserted late-first-century-AD theology into a passage which narrates events which took place 40 or 50 years before.

A prophet's call
In a parallel way, the call narratives of the classic Jewish prophets are always the last sections of the prophetic books to take form. Sunday's Deutero-Isaiah passage (Isaiah 42:1-4,6-7) is a classic example. Only toward the end of his ministry does this unnamed prophet begin to understand the uniqueness of his call.

Though he's certain he's a prophet, it takes him a lifetime to understand how unlike other prophets he is. He doesn't tear into people like most of his prophetic predecessors. Not only does he build up where others tear down, he eventually begins to understand that even non-Jews -- the coastlands and the nations -- will benefit from his ministry.

Is it possible that it also took time for the historical Jesus to discover His own uniqueness?